1.4: Science and Common Sense
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- Explain the limitations of common sense when it comes to achieving a detailed and accurate understanding of human behavior.
- Give several examples of common sense or folk psychology that are incorrect.
- Define skepticism and its role in scientific psychology.
Can We Rely on Common Sense?
Some people wonder whether the scientific approach to psychology is necessary. Can we not reach the same conclusions based on common sense or intuition? Certainly we all have intuitive beliefs about people’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings—and these beliefs are collectively referred to as folk psychology. Although much of our folk psychology is probably reasonably accurate, it is clear that much of it is not. For example, most people believe that anger can be relieved by “letting it out”—perhaps by punching something or screaming loudly. Scientific research, however, has shown that this approach tends to leave people feeling more angry, not less (Bushman, 2002). Likewise, most people believe that no one would confess to a crime that he or she had not committed, unless perhaps that person was being physically tortured. But again, extensive empirical research has shown that false confessions are surprisingly common and occur for a variety of reasons (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004).
Some Great Myths
In 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, psychologist Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues discuss several widely held commonsense beliefs about human behavior that scientific research has shown to be incorrect (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2010). Here is a short list:
- “People use only 10% of their brain power.”
- “Most people experience a midlife crisis in their 40’s or 50’s.”
- “Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles.”
- “Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems.”
- “Psychiatric admissions and crimes increase during full moons.”
How Could We Be So Wrong?
How can so many of our intuitive beliefs about human behavior be so wrong? Notice that this is an empirical question, and it just so happens that psychologists have conducted scientific research on it and identified many contributing factors (Gilovich, 1991). One is that forming detailed and accurate beliefs requires powers of observation, memory, and analysis to an extent that we do not naturally possess. It would be nearly impossible to count the number of words spoken by the women and men we happen to encounter, estimate the number of words they spoke per day, average these numbers for both groups, and compare them—all in our heads. This is why we tend to rely on mental shortcuts (what psychologists refer to as heuristics) in forming and maintaining our beliefs. For example, if a belief is widely shared—especially if it is endorsed by “experts”—and it makes intuitive sense, we tend to assume it is true. This is compounded by the fact that we then tend to focus on cases that confirm our intuitive beliefs and not on cases that dis-confirm them. This is called confirmation bias. For example, once we begin to believe that women are more talkative than men, we tend to notice and remember talkative women and silent men but ignore or forget silent women and talkative men. We also hold incorrect beliefs in part because it would be nice if they were true. For example, many people believe that calorie-reducing diets are an effective long-term treatment for obesity, yet a thorough review of the scientific evidence has shown that they are not (Mann et al., 2007). People may continue to believe in the effectiveness of dieting in part because it gives them hope for losing weight if they are obese or makes them feel good about their own “self-control” if they are not.
Scientists—especially psychologists—understand that they are just as susceptible as anyone else to intuitive but incorrect beliefs. This is why they cultivate an attitude of skepticism. Being skeptical does not mean being cynical or distrustful, nor does it mean questioning every belief or claim one comes across (which would be impossible anyway). Instead, it means pausing to consider alternatives and to search for evidence—especially systematically collected empirical evidence—when there is enough at stake to justify doing so. For example, imagine that you read a magazine article that claims that giving children a weekly allowance is a good way to help them develop financial responsibility. This is an interesting and potentially important claim (especially if you have children of your own). Taking an attitude of skepticism, however, would mean pausing to ask whether it might be instead that receiving an allowance merely teaches children to spend money—perhaps even to be more materialistic. Taking an attitude of skepticism would also mean asking what evidence supports the original claim. Is the author a scientific researcher? Is any scientific evidence cited? If the issue was important enough, it might also mean turning to the research literature to see if anyone else had studied it.
Because there is often not enough evidence to fully evaluate a belief or claim, scientists also cultivate a tolerance for uncertainty. They accept that there are many things that they simply do not know. For example, it turns out that there is no scientific evidence that receiving an allowance causes children to be more financially responsible, nor is there any scientific evidence that it causes them to be materialistic. Although this kind of uncertainty can be problematic from a practical perspective—for example, making it difficult to decide what to do when our children ask for an allowance—it is exciting from a scientific perspective. If we do not know the answer to an interesting and empirically testable question, science, and perhaps even you as a researcher, may be able to provide the answer.
- People’s intuitions about human behavior, also known as folk psychology, often turn out to be wrong. This is one primary reason that psychology relies on science rather than common sense.
- Researchers in psychology cultivate certain critical-thinking attitudes. One is skepticism. They search for evidence and consider alternatives before accepting a claim about human behavior as true. Another is tolerance for uncertainty. They withhold judgment about whether a claim is true or not when there is insufficient evidence to decide.
- Practice: For each of the following intuitive beliefs about human behavior, list three reasons that it might be true and three reasons that it might not be true:
- You cannot truly love another person unless you love yourself.
- People who receive “crisis counseling” immediately after experiencing a traumatic event are better able to cope with that trauma in the long term.
- Studying is most effective when it is always done in the same location.
- Watch the following video, in which psychologist Scott Lilienfeld talks about confirmation bias, tunnel vision, and using evidence to evaluate the world around us:
- Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 724–731.
- Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (2004). The psychology of confession evidence: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 33–67.
- Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York, NY: Free Press.
- Mann, T., Tomiyama, A. J., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62, 220–233.